Seeking a Specialist in the Clark Handicap

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Friday's renewal of the $600,000 Clark Handicap (G1) at Churchill Downs might not be the strongest in recent memory, but the dozen runners set to contest the 1 1/8-mile race figure to put on a competitive and exciting show.

From a Beyer speed figure perspective, the horse to beat is clearly #2 Tom's d'Etat. With five consecutive triple-digit numbers under his belt, he's consistent and generally the fastest horse in the field. Last time out, he was a dominant winner of the 1 1/8-mile Fayette Stakes (G2) at Keeneland, employing pace-tracking tactics to score by 4 ¼ lengths with a career-best 106 Beyer.

Tom's d'Etat has shown an affinity for Churchill Downs and will retain the services of jockey Joel Rosario, who is 3-for-3 aboard the six-year-old son of Smart Strike. But there are reasons to believe Tom's d'Etat might be vulnerable in the Clark.

For starters, Tom's d'Etat has come up short when facing top-class competition in the past. He was soundly beaten in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1), and he weakened to fourth in the Woodward Stakes (G1) after challenging in the homestretch. He was no match for McKinzie when runner-up in the Alysheba Stakes (G2) and faded to third after setting the pace in the Stephen Foster Handicap (G2).

More significantly, Tom's d'Etat could face a challenging pace scenario in the Clark Handicap. This race is loaded with front-runners and speed horses, including #4 Major Cabbie, #6 Fact Finding, #7 Mr. Buff, #9 Mr Freeze, and #11 Pioneer Spirit. While Tom's d'Etat has shown the ability to rate off the pace and finish strongly, doing so while breaking from post two in the Clark could bury Tom's d'Etat inside and behind runners.

For these reasons, I'm tempted to side with the tried-and-true Churchill Downs specialist #11 Seeking the Soul. Conditioned by Dallas Stewart, Seeking the Soul has cracked the trifecta in 10 of his 12 starts at Churchill Downs, scoring graded stakes victories in the 2017 Clark Handicap, 2018 Ack Ack Stakes (G3), and 2019 Stephen Foster Handicap (G2).

In the Stephen Foster, Seeking the Soul reiterated his affinity for Churchill Downs with a determined victory. Reserved in mid-pack, the son of Perfect Soul produced a well-timed rally to defeat Quip by a neck, while Tom's d'Etat checked in two lengths behind in third place.

Seeking the Soul subsequently embarked on a fruitless three-race campaign in California. Away from his favorite track, Seeking the Soul could finish no better than fourth in a trio of Grade 1 stakes, though I would argue he ran better than it appears on a couple of occasions.

Seeking the Soul's losing streak began in the 1 ¼-mile Pacific Classic (G1), where he never fired at all and trudged home in seventh place. Drawing a line through this no-show brings us to his fourth-place finish in the 1 1/8-mile Awesome Again Stakes (G1). Although he was beaten 8 ½ lengths, Seeking the Soul still managed to post a respectable 98 Beyer while rallying into a slow pace over a speed-favoring track. Take note, he finished just a length behind Pacific Classic winner and future Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) third-place finisher Higher Power.

Speaking of the Breeders' Cup Classic, I thought Seeking the Soul ran reasonably well to finish sixth. The deep and tiring track wasn't favorable to his late-running style, and the 1 ¼-mile distance likely stretched the limits of his stamina, yet he still managed to out-finish Grade 1 winners Code of Honor, Yoshida, and War of Will down the lane.

Cutting back to 1 1/8 miles and returning to Churchill Downs could trigger a return to peak form for Seeking the Soul. There's certainly plenty of pace to set up his late-running style, and his disappointing California campaign should ensure that he starts at a fair price in the wagering. He's my selection to win.

Underneath, #3 Mocito Rojo is worth considering. A winning machine with 17 victories from 26 starts, Mocito Rojo rattled off five consecutive stakes victories between March and September, culminating with a hard-fought triumph against graded stakes winners Silver Dust and Sir Anthony in the 1 1/8-mile Lukas Classic (G3) at Churchill Downs.

Mocito Rojo encountered a sloppy, sealed track in the Fayette Stakes and spun his wheels to finish a distant seventh behind Tom's d'Etat, but I'm tempted to forgive this performance. If he catches a dry track for the Clark, Mocito Rojo can settle a few lengths off the lead and come running for a major share of the purse. Just in keep in mind there's rain in the forecast for Churchill Downs this week, and if the track comes up wet, I'll be looking elsewhere for exotic contenders.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Clark Handicap?


Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

Recent Posts

More Blogs